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Buffalo goes bonkers over PBA's return

Do you show up at the ticket counter the morning of the Super Bowl? Do you expect to land a seat an hour before a World Series game? So what were all those people thinking, the ones who kept ringing the phones at Thruway Lanes on Sunday morning to inquire about attending the TV finals of the Denny's PBA GEICO Classic?

Bowling and Buffalo are tighter than Spandex. They're as synonymous as Yankees and pinstripes. The area lands its first full-fledged tour stop in years, and you want tickets an hour before the first ball is thrown? What do you think this is, the chicken dinner at the fire hall?

It was an accomplishment to get inside Thruway for a qualifying round, never mind the finals. There hasn't been a place in the parking lot since Wednesday's pro-am. Cars were everywhere. Cheektowaga police would have been shouting "jackpot" if they had a union boss in a snit.

"I think our capacity was 1,500, and we were glad the fire marshals did not come and visit us," said Thruway Lanes General Manager Mary Chase. And she was talking about Thursday and Friday.

There were almost 600 entries for Wednesday's pro-am, a tour record since new ownership took over in 2000. Imagine if they had advertised.

"News didn't get out to lower-average bowlers that it was for them," Chase said. "And that's what we'll change next year. We'll make sure everybody knows that the pro-am's for everybody. You don't have to be a good bowler to bowl in a pro-am."

But you had better be alert if you want a seat at the finals. The 500 tickets were gone three weeks ago, the earliest a TV event has sold out in the tour's dynamic new era. If the event comes back next year Thruway needs a computerized answering machine. Press "1" for tickets and hysterical laughter fills the earpiece.

Even with the overwhelming attendance, Chase couldn't say if Thruway will break even. The lanes incurred some $20,000 in start-up costs. Five days of league bowling were displaced. Her conclusion: Let's do it again.

"It's our sport, and you got to support the top of your line," Chase said. "Obviously, we're in the bowling industry, and this is the best of bowling. And would I prefer to have it in the summer? Yes. But this is awesome. I would never miss it for the world. I wouldn't care if we lost $50,000. I wouldn't care. This is definitely worth it. Just the talk. Everybody's buzzing, and in that buzz is Thruway Lanes."

It's about time an area bowling establishment stepped up to the foul line. Buffalo without a PBA Tour stop is like Canada without hockey, England without soccer. The area's five touring pros didn't even bother chatting up their peers on how raucous a time this would be.

"We know when we're in Detroit, when we're in Wisconsin, when we're in New York, and the crowds are the most knowledgeable crowds in the world," said runner-up Norm Duke. "They are the most lively, animated, and we love them. We don't need the Buffalo guys to tell us that."

"It's a great atmosphere," said winner Doug Kent. "To have those extra few people pumping for you and pulling for you -- physically they can't help you, but mentally they really make a difference."

Thruway Lanes didn't finalize its contract with the PBA until November. What it pulled off on short notice makes the lanes worthy of becoming a tour fixture.

"We don't know [what will happen]," Duke said. "What we do know is that the pro-am turnout is like it is, when the fans can come out and support the event, everybody wins. And when everybody wins, typically they like to repeat that."

If it's back, the best advice is get your tickets early.

"This is a bowling town," Chase said. "We've had people call for tickets from Toronto, Ont., from Farmington, from near Albany. People are coming in to be here to watch this. It's awesome. It's just awesome."


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